“Get away from the edge! Get away from the edge of the wagon!” Ellie shouted, but no one was listening; everyone was shrieking, kids twisting this way and that to see. It was like a disaster movie where the Martians suddenly busted up and everyone turned to scared rabbits, all big eyes and open mouths, right before the Martians blasted them from their clothes.

“Move, get up!” Snatching her Savage by the barrel, she sprang to her feet, cocking the weapon like a T-ball bat just as a hand hooked onto the wagon behind the elfish boy who wanted to fish. “Get out of the way!” she screamed, and brought the stock hammering down.

The people-eater bawled as its knuckles split wide open. As the boy—was that a boy under all that hair?—gawped up in surprise and pain, she punched his face with the butt. Toppling, the people-eater tumbled into two others, the three going down like bowling pins.

Oh boy, we are in so much trouble . Around her legs, the growling dogs were jostling, trying to wedge together in a wall of balled muscles and bared teeth. In front on the driver’s box, Lucian was on his feet. Racking his shotgun’s pump, Lucian boomed out a shot, and suddenly, a girl was missing her head, twin ropes of blood still pulsing because the heart hadn’t yet got the message. Banging out shots with an enormous, bucking black pistol, Sarah was hitting absolutely nothing, only driving the swarm back with the sheer volume of fire. How long could she keep it up, though? Ellie knew they didn’t have a lot of ammo. The way Sarah was running through that clip, unless she had a couple spare magazines . . .

Maybe Lucian figured out the same thing at the exact same instant: that Sarah was only wasting bullets. That if he wanted to hang on to his creepy scalp, he better book. All of a sudden, Lucian bent, scooped up a pack, hitched it over his shoulder, butted away one people-eater, booted another in the face, and leapt from the box.

“Wait! You have my bullets!” Ellie shouted as Lucian hit the ground and sprinted for the far trees. In the thick tangle of brush and low-hanging boughs, she lost sight of him almost immediately. Not one people-eater followed, probably because there were all these tasty kids.

Now what? All around, kids were still screaming and only sitting as the dogs tried surging to her left where the majority of the peopleeaters were. If the kids would just let the dogs through! Grabbing the elfish boy by the shoulder, Ellie tugged. “Get behind me, get behind the dogs!” she shouted.

The kid threw her a wild, open-mouthed stare. For a second, she thought she’d gotten through, but then he scrambled in the exact wrong direction, for the driver’s box. A flat-faced people-eater with only half a nose suddenly reared up. Shrieking, the elfish boy got an arm up. Half-Nose latched a hand and yanked. Jackknifing, the elfish boy managed to butt his free hand against the wagon. For an instant, he swayed, facedown, like a poorly balanced teeter-totter.

“Sarah!” Ellie shouted as Half-Nose drew back for a strike. “Sarah, behind you!” Pivoting, Sarah jabbed that enormous pistol at HalfNose, squeezed the trigger—and nothing, out of ammo, completely dry. The elfish boy bawled a blood-curdling scream as Half-Nose locked his jaws on the back of the boy’s neck, right around his spine. A moment later, the elfish boy, still kicking, flipped out of sight.

“Noooo!” Blinking back tears, Ellie turned, started swinging blindly, cutting an arc, miserably aware that it was only a matter of

mo ns ters time before a people-eater wrested away the Savage or another got in under a swing. Slow down, slow down; pick a target; you’ll get tired and then they’ll get you. She forced herself to wait, let the dogs protect her. Jet and Ghost, the largest, stood hip to hip, snapping whenever a people-eater got close. Crowding to the front, Mina was pressing her rump against Ellie to herd her back, except the little white-haired girl was cowering behind Ellie’s legs. Caught in a sandwich of dog and little girl, Ellie felt her balance start to go. No, no! If she fell, she might not be able to get back up in time.

“Mina, hold!” She could barely hear herself over the din: screaming kids and barking dogs and braying horses. Shots spackled and popped as the very few kids with guns fired. But they had no room to maneuver, and their aim was wild.

In Jayden’s wagon, a people-eater, bat in hand, vaulted onto the driver’s box. Jayden ducked as the bat whizzed. Long gun socked to his shoulder, the doctor with the eye patch bellowed something—maybe stay down or don’t move—and then a spume of bright yellow muzzle flash leapt. The people-eater’s arms shot out in a surprised way, like Wile E. Coyote, and tumbled off. At the rear, two more people-eaters, all arms and legs and clubs, scrambled onto the flatbed. One launched itself into shrieking children like a diver from a high platform. As the golden retriever, Daisy, and three other dogs converged, kids spilled over the sides of the wagon: their only move, and a terrible one, like buffalo being driven from a cliff.

Where are the guys on the horses, Aidan and Sam, where are they? A scream, far back. Ellie whipped around. Greg’s horse was trying to spin free from the four people-eaters grabbing at Greg’s legs and the reins. Three more swarmed onto the driver’s box of the third wagon. The driver, a girl with a long brown braid down to her waist, shrieked again as a lanky boy, with a duster like Neo’s in The Matrix, whipped the braid around the girl’s neck. Bucking, eyes buggy, the girl heaved and flopped like a fish slowly suffocating in the bottom of a boat. Balling a fist, the Neo Kid smashed the girl’s face as a second people-eater, a ratty boy in fire-engine-red snow pants, leapt onto the thrashing girl. His head darted for her neck like a scorpion stabbing its stinger. Blood spewed; Rat Boy came up with a chunk of meat in his mouth. Bawling, the wagon’s horse reared in a clash of hooves and spurted forward.

The wagon did Greg a favor, and them none. As the wagon hurtled on, the people-eaters clinging to Greg’s horse scattered; one scrawny kid slipped with a shriek that cut out as a wheel sliced his gut. Greg’s horse danced away onto a narrow ribbon of road along the tree line. Hunkered low on the animal’s withers, Greg ducked as low-lying branches whirred over his head. Still on the driver’s box, Neo Kid and Rat Boy staggered, then turned as the distance between them and Ellie’s wagon dwindled.

Watching the horse charge and the wagon swell, Ellie had six seconds: one to be paralyzed; two to understand that a collision was inevitable and that either the horse would stampede its way onto their flatbed or come to a sudden screeching stop, catapulting Neo Kid and Rat Boy into their wagon, where the two would find not only dogs to fight but lots of new things to eat. In the last three seconds, Ellie knew she’d better do something, or she was a goner.

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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